Structures

Are You Building A Community Or A Customer Base?

Gerrard Lipscombe
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There’s plenty of talk about ‘building a community’ these days. Mostly it comes from a good place. In excited, optimistic tones. The tones we use to speak about literature, art, higher ideals and utopia.

We see examples of excellent, participatory, active, engaged, caring, feisty and thriving communities, and we see a model worth following — that’s what I want for my business. To have people really engaging with the substance of it. Helping each other out. Solving problems, working together, asking for support and giving it where they can.

A little village, and it’s all thanks to our brilliant product and culture.

What’s Really Going On

It’s a nice vision. However, most businesses I speak with who mention ‘building a community’ only understand it at a distance. They see it as a generically positive thing, which becomes even nicer when it leads to more engaged customers, higher sales, better brand reputation and all the good stuff that matters to growing a profitable, sustainable business.

In some ways, community has become a sleight of hand. Whenever we want to talk about ‘increasing sales and customer activity’, we substitute in the more innocuous (read euphemistic) ‘community’.

It’s rarely intentional. The thing is: most of us really do want a genuine, thriving community around our products and services — but it’s an also, and when push comes to shove, we find it isn’t really the main course.

The Main Course

The main course for most businesses is, of course, the customer base. When they speak about community, they are really talking about their customer base. It might be a SaaS startup, preparing to launch, excitedly talking about the community they can’t wait to grow around this particular product.

In most cases, they really mean users. They’re thinking in terms of daily active users, retention, churn rates, lifetime value and referral rates.

They mean signups. They mean people who will fill out surveys and give useful feedback. They mean people who will give testimonials, talk about the product to their friends, post on social media and eagerly go out of their way to fill out bug reports and give feature requests.

Those people might very well be part of a community, but the activities described — those that describe the relationship between the customer and the business — are not what constitute a community.

These are indicators used to think and speak about a customer base. If you want to build a community, you will need to adopt a different model.

The Difference

The difference between a community and a customer base is common incentives versus transactional ones, respectively.

Communities are built on a sense of common purpose. Note, the word is ‘common’, not identical, nor the same. Common in the sense of common denominator, an underlying thread, common ground.

Members of a no-code community don’t need to be building the same product as one another, they don’t even need to be in the same industry or particularly get along with one another — they simply need to have a common layer of purpose at which they can connect and cooperate.

Typically, this layer improves as they cooperate, say, by teaching one another tips and tricks for various no-code tools (see the Makerpad community for an excellent example in action).

An authentic community shares these incentives with other community members, not with the company or business that facilitates or provides the community space. Customers, on the other hand, do not need to share any purpose or incentives with other customers. They relate directly to the business.

Community members see better outcomes when they care about the outcomes of other community members.

Customer bases see better outcomes when they care about the outcomes of the company or business they are transacting with.

Advantages Of Common Purpose

Joscha Bach describes love as ‘non-transactional modes of cooperation’. I think that’s about right. And it’s why the talk of community brings with it such warm and fuzzy feelings. When we speak about community, we are talking about a group that has identified and is relating to one another upon a sense of common purpose.

For most businesses, this level of member-to-member alignment isn’t really what they’re in the business of striving for. And that’s perfectly fine.

But if you can pull it off, it has its advantages.

When individuals act positively toward others without any direct expectation of reciprocity, you see increased generativity in the system. A community that goes out of its way to help one another — without any direct expectation of reciprocity— sees far more activity than one in which each act of support or kindness is done with expectation of immediate compensation.

A community is able to create value where there would otherwise be only empty space. Which is why it’s so inviting. And so difficult to build.

You cannot manufacture a community, but if you’re trying to build one, here’s what I would advise focusing on:

  • Ask yourself if the community is one in which members who choose to give are rewarded for doing so — without company intervention;
  • Be clear about the larger purpose of the product, business or community and work hard to communicate it in a way that’s inspiring and accessible to all members;
  • Be ready to give, give, and give upfront. It takes time to get the wheels spinning, but the strongest communities I know of invariably began with an individual or two giving without expectation — until eventually others caught the bug.
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